A Gray Line for Chicago

If you had to make a list of top Chicago destinations that are not El-accessible, what would it include? Maybe Ford City Mall, which the long-discussed Orange Line extension would reach, maybe Humboldt Park or Marquette Park. The other key locations are probably McCormick Place, Soldier Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, Jackson Park, the University of Chicago, and Pullman. All these places have something in common - they're very close to a rail line that no one but commuters use, the Metra Electric Line.

Now consider the 2016 Olympics. Even tho Chicago is far less suitable than 東京/Tokyo or Madrid to host such a huge event, this time around is the Americas' "turn" (Asia has it this year, Europe will have it in 2012) and even tho South America has never hosted an Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is the only place less suitable than Chicago. So there's a decent chance Chicago will end up hosting it. But there's a big problem - most of the proposed Olympic sites, which include the Olympic village south of McCormick Place, Soldier Field, McCormick Place itself, and Jackson Park, are far from the El. However, these places are all near the Metra Electric Line.

Now take a look at a CTA map and compare it with a map of neighborhood densities. Which of the dense neighborhoods have the least El service? Aside from neighborhoods on the far West Side that could be incorporated thru a new El line on the Mid-City Transitway route and those that would benefit from a Western Ave subway, the only major areas of high density currently excluded from El service are near the Metra Electric Line.

The conclusion is obvious: we should have an El service on the Metra Electric route. Years ago Mike Payne, a working class South Sider, went to the Harold Washington CPL and typed up just such a proposal, what he calls the Gray Line. The Gray Line would finally provide rapid transit access to the most important neglected part of the city, and it could do so fairly cheaply since most of the infrastructure is already in place. It would go a long way toward solving the Olympics transportation problem. Easy transfers could be made in the Loop by extending the Jackson tunnel and installing a moving walkway to link the Blue and Red Lines with the Van Buren Gray Line stop. Convention-goers would, for the first time, have an easy route from the airports to McCormick Place. The South Side would get a much-needed transit addition. What's the downside?

I looked around but wasn't able to find any reason why the proposal wouldn't work. The only explanation for why an incredibly cost-effective expansion of transit service isn't even being studied is that it doesn't have any high-profile patrons and it would require real cooperation between the CTA and Metra. Those are some pretty lousy reasons for ignoring an idea whose merits far outweigh those of the Circle Line and airport express, which are currently Daley and the CTA's highest transit expansion priorities. There's a chance that the needs of the Olympics will convert Daley into a supporter. But failing that, public pressure is, as always, the only way to get anything done.


Eric Allix Rogers said...

Hear, hear.

You might want to check the link to the density map. I don't think that map is what you think it is ;-)

Jake said...

oops, didn't mean to let my white supremacy slip.

i fixed the link, but the map of where white people live might be more useful as a predictor of where transit actually will expand.

Patrick said...

I was unaware of this, Jake. Thanks for your continued attention to transit issues. It's time I finally get involved in this.

Jake said...

i was looking some more at the density map (as is my wont), and i think i should revise what i wrote a little. there is one other major population concentration that wouldn't be covered by the gray line, mid-city transitway, western ave subway, or circle line: chicago lawn, marquette park, and part of west englewood. to fix that, all we'd have to do would be to extend the ashland green line to midway.

so there you go - in 200 years we might have a pretty good transit system.

Sock Puppeteer said...

You should know that that was the plan when the Dan Ryan L line was built. It was printed in the newspapers in the mid 60s. The entire South Side Mainline [the Jackson Park-Englewood lines] was to be abandoned & the L was to be moved to two unused tracks of the IC Mainline, which was ten tracks wide then. For unknown reasons it never happened & when the JP-Englewood lines were found to be structurally deficient, having been built in just six months in 1892-93, the politicians allowed the South Side ministers to force them into spending a few hundred million dollars into rebuilding it, along with the Lake St. L, which could have had most of it's route moved to the C&NW West Line. The line was to go to 115th St. & replace most of the IC local service on the South Side, letting the IC run mostly express from the far south suburbs.